LENOX -- The elusive Martha Argerich, the Garbo of pianists, appeared at Tanglewood Wednesday night to play a duo-piano recital with her young protege Alexander Gurning. Argerich, who turns 63 this year, has the greatest gift for playing the piano of anyone before the public today. It is not a gift she sought, nor one she is particularly comfortable with. Like Sviatoslav Richter in an earlier generation, she has never had any interest in a conventional virtuoso career. She's played only one solo recital in decades. She prefers to play chamber music with musicians whose company she enjoys; less often, she will perform concertos, usually drawn from a restricted repertory (though occasionally she will surprise everyone by deciding to play a different one -- most recently, Beethoven's Third). Tonight, with Gurning, she is scheduled to play the Poulenc Double Concerto with the BSO.
The burden of being Martha Argerich does not rest lightly on her. High, unrealistic expectations surround her every time she appears, which is probably one reason she cancels so often. Her gift is not merely her fabulous agility and coordination. It is a musical gift, too -- few play with such a firm propulsiveness of rhythm, and no one with such spontaneity, such subtlety and variety of articulation and color.
It all amounts to genius -- and she doesn't appear to be doing anything at all. Her work in a movement from a Mozart four-hand sonata on a recent PBS piano extravaganza taped at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer provided an almost comic contrast with that of her partner, Evgeny Kissin, who was all over the place trying to produce a sound to match Argerich's. His playing was full of wasted motion; hers was utterly focused, and her fingers and piano-perfect hands hardly seemed to be moving at all.
Wednesday night's Tanglewood concert was both homespun and highly charged. Argerich, wearing a striking skirt of Polynesian pattern in orange and electric blue, and Gurning, in basic black, had worked out the mechanics of the music but not those of walking on and off and bowing; they were always about to bump into each other. The page turners were clearly terrified; it is not easy to keep up with Argerich.
That is something Gurning could do. Born in 1973 in Belgium, of Indonesian and Polish parents, Gurning is gifted, well-trained, and musical. He can play as fast and as accurately as Argerich, and with sensitivity, too. What he cannot begin to do is match her spectrum of color and attack. At first one could think he had drawn the duller-sounding piano -- but then they switched instruments.
Gurning and Argerich began with a Mozart four-hand sonata, K. 318, Gurning primo, Argerich secondo. This was a lively affair, moving at a tremendous clip, and pretty far removed from anything you might hear on the domestic scale for which the piece was written.
The rest of the program was all transcriptions -- two suites of ballet music, Prokofiev's "Cinderella" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" (arranged by Mikhail Pletnev and Nicolas Economu, respectively), and Rachmaninoff's two-piano version of his "Symphonic Dances" for orchestra. After the Rachmaninoff had been beaten into submission, one longed to hear something calm and restorative, like Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." Instead they offered the thunder and lightning of Lutoslawski's "Variations on a Theme of Paganini."
There wasn't a lot of musical density in the program, but it was fun to hear and watch the pianists play with the captivating melodies and ingenious textures and generate the dancing rhythms. In the famous "Nutcracker" solos, Argerich summoned the sounds of other instruments from the piano -- prolonging the pedal in the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," for example, she re-created the slower decay in the sound of the celeste. Throughout the evening, Argerich seemed to be enjoying a volatile, explosive conversation with the instrument, nodding in agreement, pouting, flirting, chuckling, scowling, raging -- she has the expressive face of a great actress. She also smiled benevolently on Gurning, who looked and sounded more placid, although he must have felt like an early Christian who has just discovered he is not alone in the Colosseum.